Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pulp


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It wasn't so long ago when I found myself asking a couple of guys in the Digital Pulps Preservation group, "So just what exactly is a pulp, anyways?" My brother-in-law asked me the same thing during a visit last week, and I've been meaning to meander on the subject for a while now. And it's no wonder that I'd wonder what a pulp is. I swear you'd never see the real deal unless you went looking - and in the right place. Ask about pulps in most comic shops, and you'll get some sort of blank stare. If the guy behind the counter is old enough, he'll tell you that he's got a couple of issues of The Shadow at home but that he hasn't had any pulps in decades. I like to scour antique malls, flea markets, used book stores, estate sales, and any other place I might find vintage magazines, but finding genuine pulps when I'm gumshoeing about is rare indeed, and if I do find them they're most likely falling to pieces. I gave my dear old granny that aviatrix-covered love pulp I scanned during my series on WWII-era pulps, and she pretty much gave me a strange look like what the hell is this. Largely, any conception of what a pulp magazine actually is/was has completely disappeared from our cultural consciousness.

On the other hand, ask the modern reader what pulp is, and you'll most likely get a vague genre definition - "hard-boiled" "action-packed" "sleaze" - something like that. And to be fair, this is completely understandable in that the explosion of cheap crime and sex paperbacks (which are one of the forms that replaced the pulp magazine along with comics and the boob tube) are also referred to as pulp and loom more recently in the popular imagination. Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is surely the touchstone usage of the word for my generation, and a writer like Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiassen gets the word used in a good portion of their book reviews as nearly interchangeable for "noir," another descriptor that gets bandied about often without too much meaning. Certainly much of the fiction in the pulp magazines was indeed fast-paced as part of the formula, but, pick up an early pulp, and you might find the pace not nearly as fast as you imagined. And equating "pulp" with detective or crime fiction seems to ignore the other 80% of the pulps - the westerns, the science-fiction pulps, the love pulps, the sports pulps, the adventure titles, etc. The early pulps encompassed a whole range of genres, and the pulps to come had something for every interest, even if we seem to remember only the red-blooded variety today.

So. Before I get to my own personal definition of pulp, I'd better give the standard or strict definition with a traditional version of the origin of the pulps. The pulps originated in the same decade that saw an industry-wide revolution in magazine production and consumption in America, the 1890s. As the century was about to turn, a number of happenings in American life converged to allow for a wider magazine readership. Prior to this decade, there were some excellent American periodicals, and they did indeed contain fiction. Century, Harper's, and Scribner's are a few that stand out, and the outstanding Making of America project at Cornell has actually made these magazines digitally available here. I have issues of Century with Mark Twain, issues of Harper's with Walt Whitman, or issues of Scribner's with Joel Chandler Harris, but it's fair to say that on the whole these magazines weren't exactly geared toward the masses in content or in price. These magazines were aimed at an idealized genteel reader of means and reflect that old bothersome inferiority complex about America's place in the arts. Theodore Peterson writes in Magazines in the Twentieth Century, my 1964 copy being very outdated and yet the best book on the magazine industry as a whole that I've had the pleasure to read, that the monthly magazines, "in retrospect seem curiously remote from the dramatic changes then taking place in American life. Literature, art, manners, travel, and history got their attention, and their editors often seemed to have had their eyes more closely on Europe than on America. Thus the reader of Harper's, skimming his copies for 1890, could settle down to subjects as remote from the contemporary American scene as Edwin Lord Weeks's "Street Scenes of India," "The Social Side of Yachting," Prof. F.B. Goodrich's "The Young Whist Player's Novitiate," and "Agricultural Chile."" Between the price and the content (don't get me wrong, these magazines are beautifully printed and often greatly interesting), it's no wonder that the circulation c. 1890 of the nation's most popular monthlies was at about 100,000 copies. On the other end of the fiction spectrum, were the cheap weeklies, story papers and dime novels. Petersen notes, "Between there were few magazines of popular price and general appeal."

But if there was a gap in the content being offered in the national periodicals, there were also other forces at work in creating new possibilities for the American magazine. A truly national infrastructure had emerged concurrent with the industrial revolution. America completed its first transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the octopus of rail grew ever larger with new tentacles as the century unfolded with 5,000 miles of new rail being laid a year as at the turn of the century. The system of roads and waterways that had helped the north win the Civil War expanded elsewhere, and local and regional markets were hence subsumed by emerging national markets. The number of rural delivery mail routes grew from 44 in 1897 to 4,000 in 1900 to 25,000 in 1903. The average factory, between 1850 and 1910, increased its capital more than 39 times, its number of workers by 7 times, and the value of its created goods more than 19 times. National markets meant the emergence of name brands and the birth of the psychology of advertising. Signs and handbills and local papers could no longer meet the advertising needs of American companies trying to reach a national audience. Indeed, whatever appetite an increasingly educated populace had for reading material might not have been sated if the interests of the advertising beast had not worked together with the well-being of a new type of magazine publisher. Largely, revenue from advertising is where magazines made their money, even in the pulps that did not carry as much advertising as the slicks (the absence of advertising in the pulps is largely a misnomer, particularly in the early years, as the pulps of the first decade of the 1900s might easily have 60 pages of ads, most often printed on a slick stock of paper and placed in advertising sections at the beginning and end of the magazine). It was this fact that sparked an enormous growth in the circulation of the American magazine which only occured when publishers had the foresight to realize that if they were to lower the price of their magazines far enough and get their publication in the hands of enough Americans, there was a killing to be made through advertising revenue.

The man who would first revolutionize the industry and who would quickly thereafter birth the pulp was Frank A. Munsey. In the late 1870s, Munsey had worked as a manager of the Western Union Telegraph Company in Augusta , Maine, and had seen the success of magazine publishers there (Peleg Vickery's Fireside Companion and Edward Charles Allen's People's Literary Companion) and had been convinced by talks about publishing with Allen in Augusta House that there was money to be made in the periodical business. Munsey's first venture into publishing was the story paper, Golden Argosy, targeted toward the juvenile market. For five years, Golden Argosy did not do very well. Munsey was often in debt and would write material himself when he could not afford to buy it. The magazine did begin to prosper in 1887 but must not have done too terribly well, as Munsey changed the format to include non-fiction and wider areas of interest in late November of 1888. Perhaps some clue as to why he did this can be found in the group of publications I'm about to put up. My Czech friend, Ufikus, truly an interesting individual as well a scanner specializing in earlier pulp and pulp antecedents has scanned a number of issues of Golden Argosy from right before the format change, and even though it might break my train of thought here, I'll take the opportunity to put the scans up on my blog here for a wider audience to get to. I haven't looked very closely at these issues (except at the illustrations, I'm bad like that), but I have noticed that the first issue I'm posting contains work by Horatio Alger as well as part of a serial written by Munsey himself. My big thanks to Ufi for these scans (and to the donator of the material if these were sent to him - I can't recall). Ufi has given me much technical advice since I started scanning old paper. I hate to put these up without any discussion of the contents, but have at them, and perhaps some of you out there might find cause to explore the stories within on blogs or classrooms or writings of your own.

Golden Argosy v006n16 (1888-03-17)(ufikus-DPP)

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Get the full hi-res scan here.

Golden Argosy v006n18 (1888-03-31) (ufikus-DPP)

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Get the full hi-res scan here.

Golden Argosy v006n19 (1888-04-07) (ufikus-DPP)

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Get the full hi-res scan here.

Golden Argosy v006n20 (1888-04-14) (ufikus-DPP)

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Get the full hi-res scan here.

Golden Argosy v006n21 (1888-04-21) (ufikus-DPP)

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Get the full hi-res scan here.

Golden Argosy v006n36 (1888-08-04)(ufikus-DPP)

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Get the full hi-res scan here.


By the time the depression of 1893 struck, Munsey found himself with $100,000 in debt. In dire straits, Munsey announced that his other failing magazine Munsey's, a mixed-content magazine that began in February 1889 as a weekly and that had converted to a monthly in October 1891, would be dropping in price from a quarter to one thin dime, a decision that changed the magazine industry forever. Munsey took out a full page ad in The New York Sun on a Monday morning in October proclaiming that the magazine was dropping it's subscription price fro $3 to only $1 a year. The September issue of Munsey's also proclaimed the news:

At ten cents per copy and at a dollar a year for subscriptions in advance, Munsey's will have reached that point, a point below which no good magazine will ever go, but to which all magazines of large circulation must eventually come. The present low price of paper and the perfecting of printing machinery make it possible to sell at a profit a magazine at these figures - as good a magazine as has ever been issued, provided it is not too heavily freighted with advertisements.


Of course, the American News Company, which distributed the bulk of the country's magazines stood in the way of Munsey cutting their profit, so he sold directly to newsstands. He'd sent out letters and handbills by the thousands to newsdealers to take his magazine, but the real motivator for these merchants was when the requests came pouring in from all directions from customers for Munsey's magazine. The first ten-cent issue sold 40,000. The second sold 60,000. By the fifth ten-cent issue circulation was 200,000. By April 1895, circulation was 500,000. By March 1898, Munsey claimed his magazine had the largest circulation of any magazine in the world, and he followed in 1901 with the boast that Munsey's circulation was double the combined circulations of the old guard, Century, Harper's, and Scribner's together. In 1890, the biggest magazines circulated in the neighborhood of 100,000 readers. By 1900, the circulation of the top magazines, many of whom had dropped their price as Munsey predicted, neared 1,000,000. That's a ten-fold increase in magazine readers in a single decade, a true revolution in American magazines. Thus, writes Theodore Peterson, Munsey:

vividly demonstrated a basic economic principle of twentieth-century magazine publishing - a principle which McClure, Waker, Curtis, and others were discovering in the late nineteenth century. It was simply this: one could achieve a large circulation by selling his magazine for much less than its cost of production and could take his profits from the high volume of advertising that a large circulation attracted. For not only did Munsey, like McClure and the others, make his appeal to a large mass of hitherto ignored readers; he also made his appeal to a large and untapped class of advertisers, advertisers as eager for inexpensive space rates as readers were for inexpensive magazines. Not long after his announcement in the Sun, advertisers knew him for his famous rate of $1 a page for each thousand of circulation.


Publisher after publisher would eventually figure out that you might even lose money in the production of your magazine and yet turn a profit. If the print run of your magazine is high enough, and advertisers are paying for page space based on circulation, you can lose money during the manufacture and distribution phase but make much more back from advertisers. Hence, much of magazine publishing became an exercise in mass production. Making this mass production possible and production costs low enough was the birth of the rotary press, capable of printing ten times faster than a flat bed press. Century Magazine would employ a rotary press in 1886, and other magazines would quickly improve upon that basic press in the 1890s with new rotary technologies that allowed for halftone illustrations and multicolor printings. The pricey engravings or even hand-colored art that only the established or high-end magazines at one time afford were then replaced by much cheaper photoengravings. Magazines like McClure's, The Saturday Evening Post, and the newly re-imagined Cosmopolitan would make great use of these new technologies. while Munsey would take his second magazine, his Argosy, in the opposite direction, down the avenue of pulp.

Munsey followed the changes he made to Munsey's with a revamping of Argosy in 1896, converting it to an all-fiction magazine printed on a rough-wood paper that sold for a dime with the boast on the cover, "A Dollar's worth of reading for Ten Cents." Printing for the first time on low-grade paper, Munsey was banking that his reader's valued a fistful of fiction more than the paper it was printed on. The oft-cited predecessor to the pulps, the dime novels, could not receive second-class postage as a single publications, but periodicals could be sent cheaply through the increasingly large and efficient mail system. Part of the pulp revolution had to do with the stories themselves. In George Britt's Forty Years - Forty Millions: The Career of Frank A. Munsey, Munsey lays out what he thinks the emerging audience for fiction in the magazines was looking for, "We want stories. That is what we mean - stories, not dialect sketches, not washed out studies of effete human nature, not weak tales of effete human nature, not weak tales of sickly sentimentality, not 'pretty' writing....We do want fiction in which there is a story, a force, a tale that means something - in short a story. Good writing is as common as clam shells, while good stories are as rare as statesmanship." I think it is fair to say that Munsey's prescription for fiction was being followed by the new style of magazine in the 1890s; it was not peculiar to Argosy. Indeed, many of the pulp forbears in terms of genre fiction appeared in the slick magazines of the period. Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure yarns might appear in McClure's. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories ran in The Strand. Rudyard Kipling was in Cosmopolitan. H.G. Wells' "scientific romances" appeared in Pearson's. The stories in the early pulp magazines had at least as much in common with what was happening in the new effort in the slicks to appeal to the middle class as with the fare in dimes and story papers that are most often pointed out as the predecessors to pulps. The anthology fiction of early pulps like Argosy, The Popular Magazine, All-Story, etc. was not "low-brow" fiction, in fact many authors operated in both realms. Stories that did not meet the standards of the slick editors (whether it be for supposed literary merit, story formula, tone, or whatnot) landed in the pulps, and this was true for many authors for the duration of the pulp era. Later on, as the pulps expanded and splintered into more and more titles in the golden age of the pulps in the 20s and 30s, the influence of dime novel type of stories might have become more pronounced as the markets merged and titles like Nick Carter would become Detective Story or Street & Smith's Wild West Weekly would go from dime to pulp format. Even in that era, though, there were pulps for every taste and written to various segments of society. Lumping all of pulpdom in together is rarely an effective exercise.

Which brings me to the pulp paper itself and the mode of manufacture, perhaps the most effective way to identify a pulp magazine. Munsey correctly believed that there was an audience out there that cared more about the stories themselves than the paper they were printed on. By keeping production costs low (cheap paper, cheap ink, authors paid in pennies per word or even less), publishers could give readers hours and hours of reading for a dime with fewer advertisements (though I'll repeat my caveat that the early pulps did indeed have many advertisements, if often for down-market goods, just ask the guys that scan 80 pages of ad sections in the course of an issue). I'll quote a bit of Ed Hulse's Blood 'N' Thunder Guide to the Pulps, which you can get here - I also recommend his now quarterly publication on pulps by the same name:

The average pulp measured approximately seven by ten inches...Successful pulp magazines earned plenty of coin for publishers because they were so easy to produce, The paper was crudely and economically manufactured. First, wood chips were pulverized in to tiny fibers. These were poured into a slurry of acid, which was incompletely neutralized as the bleached mixture was spread into large sheets, quickly dried, and rolled up in large spools. (Close examination of woodpulp paper will reveal tiny, embedded slivers of wood that weren't fully dissolved in the slurrying stage.) The rapid production prevented thorough neutralization of the acid, and it's the acidic content that causes pulp paper to degrade as it ages - a process invariable accelerated by continued exposure to heat, moisture, and sunlight.


It's this decaying paper that I think of first when I hear the word pulp. I've read somewhere that smell is the most notable of the senses when it comes to the way memory works, and for me the thought of pulp brings to mind a beautiful, melodious odor that wafts into the house anytime I get a particularly ripe bunch of old magazines off of eBay or, to a lesser extent, every time I open up one of the bags I keep a pulp in or each time I walk into my walk-in closet in the master bath, the ignominious home of my magazine collection. I was surfing through the Life collection of images hosted on Google looking for an introductory picture for this post and found a number of great lumber industry and pulp mill pictures in their archives, and I'm going to go ahead and put them up as a visual aid. A couple of guys with my family's Cub Scout troop who work in town here at International Paper put together an activity where the boys made their own paper last year, but here are some vintage photos of the process writ on a far grander scale. These pictures are from facilities in Canada (where most of the NY publishers got their paper from), Eastern Europe, and Georgia, and are probably include pictures of the making of newsprint or other stocks):

A sea of logs

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Love this one

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Mountains of trees to feed America's reading appetites

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Wood chips being digested

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Stevedores loading wet pulp

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The pulp is quickly dried

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and rolled

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So much industry (and so many trees!) goes into all the paper we read and otherwise consume, sometimes it's easy to forget.

Regarding the printing of pulp magazines, Ed Hulse continues :

Printed on massive presses that emptied the large paper spools at frightening speed, sixteen pages "signatures" - four folded sheets, each covered on four sides with text - were stacked in groups and stapled together...Four-color wraparound covers, most printed on lightweight coated stock were then glued to the stapled signatures.

The majority of pulps were not "finished," i.e., trimmed. Rotating saw-toothed blades left serrated edges on pages cut from the paper spools, and by skipping the step of trimming the stacked signatures, publisher were able to save time and money. This economy also led to covers being slightly larger than the "text block" of stapled signatures. The cover draped over the block, and those overhanging edges became subject to creases and tears owing to the way pulp magazines were bundled and handled.


Ed allows for a number of exceptions in this definition. Some pulps experimented with a "bedsheet" format at different periods where the paper dimensions grew, usually as page counts shrank. During the war, as paper shortages would cause many publishers, particularly the ones without good political contacts, to cut down on the number of titles, some pulp titles converted to digest size (and some would go back to the larger format later). Magazines that began their life in the pulp format, Hulse continues, might be considered pulps even in their digest format. Included in a strict definition of what a pulp magazine is the caveat that the pulp magazine is almost all fiction.

Two items I tend to associate with the pulps, but which were by no means universal, are the painted covers and the interior illustrations. These covers ranging from skillful and subtle to outlandishly garish are the images internet writers put up when discussing pulps, but not all pulps had painted covers. Argosy began with a very boring cover scheme not that far removed from the time when magazines like Scribner's or Century would run the same static cover for an entire year. Here's the issue checklist from one of the best internet resources on pulp out there, Galactic Central so that you can see what I mean. In 1905, Argosy moved to line-drawn and painted covers to keep up with magazines like Street & Smith's Popular Magazine. Here's a bigger look and the earliest scan of Argosy I have in my files, raw scans and cover edit by Cimmerian32 with interior edits and the purchase of the pulp coming from Ufikus, thanks, fellas.

Argosy v058n04 (1908-11.Munsey) c2c (Team-DPP)

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contents for the issue

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The full scan is available here here.

Off the top of my head I recall the reprint pulp Famous Fantastic Mysteries started with text covers and that the Trojan line of pulps from Harry Donenfeld and Frank Armer ( Romantic Detective, Candid Detective, etc) featured photo covers as well. We've seen 10 Story Book here at Darwinscans before which ran photo covers mixed with some line art for it's duration, and I'm sure there were other pulps that eschewed the art covers, too. As for the interior illustrations I always associate with pulp magazines, those largely didn't show up until the 20s when they began to appear in the magazines and grew in frequency from there. They add much character to a publication, and I admit I'm often a little disappointed when I find out a pulp contains no drawings.

A group of magazines that often have the painted covers and the illustrations but that purists exclude are the digest magazines of the 50s. Classic magazines like Manhunt or Galaxy science fiction of digest size aren't pulps, some argue, because of their dimensions or paper stock even though authors who wrote in the pulps also wrote for those magazines and artists that did covers and illustrations in the pulps provided the art. Not included as pulps, either, are the "true" genres. True crime, true story, confessions mags or the post-war men's adventure (sweat) mags are all excluded from pulpdom by many even though many of the stories were undoubtedly entirely fabricated by staff writers. And yet, when you read novels and other material from the time period, it is not uncommon for any of these types of magazines to be referred to as a pulp magazine either because they were printed on the same type of paper and sold from the same stands as the all-fiction mags or as a way of pointing out their low stature, it's not exactly clear to the modern reader. Last weekend, reading Cleve F. Adams' second novel, And Sudden Death, originally serialized in 1939, I came across this bit, "In the conversation which brought the meal to an end, McBride discovered that Mr. Carmichael was in the sand and gravel business. Miss Smythe, whom McBride had thought might be a department store buyer, was, it developed a writer for something she called the love pulps. She said she wrote under the name of Beulah Poindexter." To be sure, the writers and editors who worked for the pulps did use the term (among others) to describe this category of magazine and differentiate it from the slicks, and you see it in their personal letters and in letters back and forth from writers to the editors. Harold Hersey, who edited for Street & Smith, Clayton, MacFadden, and went on to own his own pulp line before the depression wiped him out, named his 1937 autobiography Pulpwood Editor. Recently, I was surprised to find his name as editor on Charlton's Hit Parader in the mid-40s. Similarly, western scribe Frank Gruber entitled his 1967 memoir The Pulp Jungle. You can find the term pulp used in the writer and publisher trade magazines of the day as well. I get the feeling that wider use of the term within the industry didn't really take hold until the 30s, but I'm unsure of this.

After all this roundabout pontificating about pulp (half of this post was written in a late night fugue state and the other half tuckered-out after a particularly busy weekend), I'm entirely sure that I haven't been entirely clear in my definition which I suspected would happen in the first place. And yet this post is goin' up as is, dammit! That pulp has become a blanket term for lowbrow and sleazy genre literature is a misnomer. For some, calling a piece of art or commerce mere pulp means it's a gutter-rat's daydream, basura, below consideration. For other writers and for some seedy counter-culture types, pulp is to be embraced as gritty and exciting, authentic and dangerous, delightfully taboo. That much of the fiction in the pulp magazines themselves, and especially the early pulps, was solidly middle-class is lost to the ages, I suppose, and I admit my personal definition of pulp reflects this as well. To me there are the narrowly considered class of pulp magazines I hope I've delineated, and then there is a broader, printed pulp-medium. The pulps are pulp. True crime magazines are pulp. Confession magazines are pulp. Comics are pulp. Sweat mags are pulp. Pocket mags are pulp. The mass market 25 cent paperbacks that shouldered out the "true" pulp mags are pulp. Music and monster and exploitation mags are pulp. Anything printed on cheap pulp paper qualifies, trimmed or no, and plenty of mags on slick paper are pulp, too. Pulp pulp pulp pulp pulp pulp pulp.

The source for the statistics above regarding American industrialization and for the history of Frank Munsey's magazine can be found in the Theodore Petersen book.

I'll return to many topics I've touched on here in the future to take a closer look with full scans. In particular I plan to visit the 1890s slicks at one time or another (I just love McClures). I'll get to some Hersey-edited issues of Hit Parader in a future series on music magazines, and I absolutely mean to explore fully every corner the "true" pulp mags, my next planned project in that department being a series on the pulp Western. But first, the girlies (and a couple of non-pulp projects, hold yer horses, pardners)! Next time, same pulp channel.

6 comments:

Steve Scott said...

This is an excellent and insightful essay. Bravo!

darwination said...

Thanks for the kind words, Steve. One of the fun things about blogging is that you just write like mad and can "publish" in an instant. Not quite as fun is the first couple of times you return to a post and see grammar errors or phrase repetitions in the like. At least you can edit into perpetuity, though I admit I'm frequently too lazy to do so or would rather move on to the next post :)

Walker Martin said...

Welcome back! I've almost given up on seeing any new posts but you are back with a vengeance. Being a pulp collector, I am looking forward to your future essays on the pulps, especially your thoughts on the pulp western.

SubtropicBob said...

Thanks for that great post full of fascinating historical info and images!
- SubtropicBob
www.MensPulpMags.com

darwination said...

Thanks, Bob. I'm happy you enjoyed it and thanks for coming to my blog. Your blog on men's adventure mags is one of my favorites. The post you did last month on the first issue of Mr. America has put a new magazine on my most wanted list. I've just got to have the nuclear-themed issue with all of those neat, orange-tinted illustrations.

g23 said...

A fascinating post. Thanks Darwin!